Directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
Starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano.
Conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) spends his retirement at a luxury hotel in the Alps, when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday. Meanwhile, his best friend, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) plans his next masterpiece.
Few films this year think they’re as clever as Youth. It seems like a film that’s begging for repeat viewings, to pick up themes and ideas you might have missed first time round. But there’s nothing much there. It’s director Paolo Sorrentino on autopilot. Maybe this is his way of winding down before building up to something big. Because Youth doesn’t seem to build up to much when it’s all over.
What little plot there is follows Fred Ballinger, a celebrated composer who has retired. Opening with a scene between him and a representative from Buckingham Palace, he’s the perfect grumpy old man. He’s lived his life and he’s content to simply sit the rest of it out in the sunshine and relaxation of the Alps. But repeated attempts by the Queen to lure him out of retirement make him ponder on what this whole thing called ‘life’ really means. On the other hand, there’s his best friend Mick. A film director who’s always bubbling with enthusiasm with the ‘next film’, he’s holed himself up with a team of young writers, creating a script for his muse, Brenda Morel.
Together they wander the countryside discussing toilet habits, women, past loves and other memories that are slowly fading as life catches up with them.
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel talking about anything is great entertainment, for a while. You can tell that these two characters have been friends for years and have experienced so much together. They’re also great roles for each actor, both of whom have been subject to minor but memorable roles in recent years. It’s easy to say that they’re both great actors, but Youth is a reminder of how good they really are. Unfortunately, their topics of conversation do seem to dwindle now and again, making an already slow film even more so at times. But it’s still nice to see them with something to chew on, for a little bit, at least.
Supporting players include Rachel Weisz as Fred’s daughter, currently shrugging off a soured relationship – her boyfriend left her for Paloma Faith, who turns up in a memorable cameo that might give the film a shot in the arm for those audience members feeling a bit weary – and Paul Dano, a young actor looking to get away from a robot movie called Mr.Q, by researching a new role at the hotel.
They all get their time to shine, but sometimes the lack of direction in the film can be frustrating. Yes, it’s interesting to watch these characters live their lives at times, but when that’s all it really is for two hours, there is a lot of dead air.
Perhaps the biggest issue for its pacing is that the film rarely strays from the hotel in which it’s set. It would be fine if the hotel was actually a character in itself, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it’s just…there. Yes, there are shots that show other guests enjoying the facilities, but they serve no real purpose other than to offer respite from people conversing in lawn chairs and afternoon strolls. You can only watch that sort of thing for so long before it becomes monotonous.
But, that said, the film does look beautiful. One memorable sequence shows people in various steam rooms, one of them looking like the seventh circle of hell. Add to that various dream sequences that might seem out of place, but still look amazing.
Still, all of this beautiful imagery and great performances mean nothing if there’s barely a thread keeping it all together. It’s a film that makes you think there’s something underneath, because all those important discussions about life and old age can’t be for nothing, right? But when you start searching, you don’t leave with much.
It’s a shame, because Paolo Sorrentino is way, way better than Youth. Maybe the Oscar he won for his last film, The Great Beauty, put him off trying anything too ambitious and he simply wanted to get Youth off of his chest. If that’s the case, then his next film should be a masterpiece…
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★